1. in an extremely difficult situation
1.1 At the point of death
‘one or two would talk to the press in extremis’
IRAQ. Here I am in Iraq once again operating on several contracts for a fairly well known international PMSC (Private Military/Security Company) protecting and moving ‘nouns’ all over this Middle Eastern dust bowl in anticipation of the Multinational Force’s troop withdrawal and handover of responsibilities of security and governance back to the Iraqis. While we were all skeptical of what the handover would produce, We were committed to that desired end state and our mission sets reflected such as demobilizations kept cargo movement requests heavy across the board.
Drilling down into it. In June of 2010, I found myself performing as a Team Leader for a seasoned set of contractors who knew the job and carried out the common tasks our larger military partners handed to us in the Baghdad area of operations pushing persons and items all over the country from there. The asset movement request was a fairly benign push when looked at from the outside . Team 14 was assigned to pick up Class items for transport from Camp Taji (old Camp Cooke) and shift them over to FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warhorse near Baqubah in Diyala Province. This meant running our convoy operation West to East from Taji to Warhorse crossing the Tigris river then hooking North to the FOB Entrance.
What was our cargo? It was not the Crown jewels of some ancient empire, nor experimental military hardware or the secret movement of important persons and their gear. It was empty wall lockers. That’s right- rare, precious and common, stuff all needs to get from point A to point B. You run the same risks and threats without regard to what is being moved. So, empty wall lockers it was.
Mission Set. The team was composed of One Team Leader (me), One Assistant Team leader (A third Country National), an local Interpreter and 10 well-trained local nations serving as security for any and all loads. However, for this mission I had no Assistant Team Leader. It was just me, the boys and my Terp’. I had worked with this convoy operations team for the last six months hauling everything from M1 Abrahms tanks to skittles back and forth on Iraq’s MSRs and ASRs. I trusted them implicitly. We all performed and performed well together through some grueling op tempos, road problems and violent encounters as well. We all knew what fatigue, fear, friction and loss were and could do to us as individuals and as a team no matter how tight knit.
The team spent the night in transit billeting and accommodations on the North end of Camp Taji near the fuel depot. In 2010, Camp Taji was at the height of it’s build up and seemed like a small city in function. It even had a Mayors Cell. It was first and foremost an air base with all sorts of planes and flying traffic hitting the runways, but it had also become a fuel point and convoy support center on it’s North end with a bustle of ground traffic elements coming and going as well.
Back in 2004, Camp Taji became my initial resting place in Iraq on my first legit in-country protective detail contract for USAID helping their engineers do all sorts of water and energy assessments for anticipated rebuilds. I checked in with the client, we did a late day load transfer and checked that the drivers were good for the night and ready for the next day push. As a leader you are the last to sleep and the first up every day. The Devil is in the details. What can go wrong will go wrong so it is best to make sure you have as much chaos contained at the front end with your readiness and welfare checks well before hitting the Red Zone. The evenings and early morning hours prior to mission sets were where you shook out any lingering issues and set things straight. You never treated any movement in the Red Zone like a casual trip to the grocery store. Let’s face it. A thirteen vehicle convoy is not low profile. It is a juicy target and everyone knows it.
That morning, I have to admit, I felt some reservations. Why? No idea. My gut was talking to me and I do listen to it more often than not, but the mission is the mission and there was no stopping it. What would I do? Call up the Tactical Operation Center and say, “Hey, not today. The move needs to wait. I grew feelings…,” well, that was not going to happen. So, the team assembled for mission prep- vehicle preventive maintenance checks done, combat inspections performed, and a meager morning meal had prior. We made a halt right inside Castle Gate for final accountability. We had everyone – three Gun trucks, ten haulers and our mission set orders. I turned on the MDTS which is a civilian version of a blue force tracker, checked in with our PMSC command element located in Baghdad and pushed out the gate South on MSR TAMPA to the double bridges turn off that would take us East in the direction of FOB Warhorse.
Check Point. Back in the day, Iraqi check points were ‘optional’ for protective details and most PMSC elements, but in 2010, they were not and as anyone with experience in Iraq at that time could attest- they were more than just a minor irritant. They were a major pain in the ass. Iraqi police and military personnel were exacting their revenge for past slights and as well getting their rocks off on the shift and transfer in power from the OIF elements to the Iraqi national government. It was not uncommon to get your registration papers checked and at the same time be shook down for anything of value one might ‘trade’ to be released from inspection and move along. I must say from the outside, I did kind of admire the Iraqis for who they are- Hardscrabble bandits and highwaymen whether they were in uniform or not. They were all consummate opportunists. Once you realized this and had a decent stash of goods to use as highway ‘tokens’, you were usually good to go. … but that was not the case this day.
The Route plan seemed simple enough, take MSR TAMPA South to the double bridges connector and head East to ROUTE PLUTO and do a short push to the needed Northern ASR called DOVER. All was going well until we were exiting the connector onto ROUTE PLUTO.
A military checkpoint was set before us. You get to know the routine, and to be honest, you often become complacent in the face of the aggravations the Iraqi soldiers invent, but this time it was different. Inside the checkpoint, everyone was on autopilot the Iraqi soldier came up, checked papers, said hello and was about to let us go until one of his compatriots rushed up to the truck, grabbed the open window ledge on our vehicle door and half stuck his head in the window with a serious look, said nothing and left. His fellow soldier was just as surprised at the behavior as I was. The first thing in my mind was ‘FUCK’. This broke all baselines and routines. This had never happened before and I was especially concerned given this soldier locked eyes with me and showed intent and ten vanished as fast as he arrived, but what can you do? This soldier obviously was a part of their checkpoint team and while his behavior set off all the alarm bells, he did nothing that warranted an immediate response. He was collecting information. I knew it, he knew it and that was bad enough.
We pushed onto ROUTE PLUTO and then onto ROUTE DOVER with our thirteen vehicle convoy lumbering along at a measured pace. This part of Baghdad was near an area called Sadr City and Muqtada Al Sadr and his militias were a constant source of threats and aggravations to any and all on the ground in Iraq. Operating in the vicinity and going through the sublime boundaries of a religious warlord was never good, but it had to be done.
Contact. The convoy pressed on. Then it happened. An imperceptible at first, but very real shockwave hit me, the truck, the driver and the turret gunner all at once! I snapped out of it after having bounced my head off the Level B7 armored window. Tache psyche effect was in full play. All of my perceptions slowed down and I felt like I was moving through soup as I regained my mental and physical footing and realized we had just been hit by an EFP. An EFP is an explosively formed penetrator also known as a platter charge which was introduced to Asia and the Middle East by none other than yours truly, the United States, who originally taught the Mujahideen to pack explosives behind their pot belly stoves turning them into molten brass and steel directional penetrators that could defeat even the most advanced of armors. These wicked devices are pandora’s box unleashed on any convoy. Today it was our turn.
My driver was in full panic mode, frozen in place except for his screaming in a mixture of Arabic and gibberish I could not comprehend. My gunner was limp and silent. As my training kicked in, I reached straight for my MDTS and hit the F6 and Broken Arrow buttons at once which was to send out an attack alert and all units help call to the ambush site. It was useless as in not working. Whether it was software or the explosive hit- NOTHING TRANSMITTED. NOTHING HAPPENED. Murphy gets a vote every time and here he was just like an unwanted friend. I had to think and think quick. This was not my first rodeo or ambush, I did not hear any Small Arms Fire (SAF) or any other enemy related activity, but anticipated it. It never came.
I reached for the Thuraya Satellite phone – no connection signal. I pulled out my local etisalat phone to make an emergency call and let our Tactical Operations Center know we were in trouble – no luck there either. We were in what appeared to be a dead zone.
Feeling more and more helpless by the communications blackout, I had one more device to try- my personal stateside Blackberry. No shit it worked. I got a Verizon company operator from back in the states on the line and much to their dismay explained my situation and asked to be patched through to our HQ operations team and they answered; now that comms had been made and no outgoing or return fire was occurring, It was time to address casualties, do an on-spot battle damage assessment and lead the rest of the team and column. We were not remotely out of this problem yet…